Vincent Zhou
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Q&A with defending Worlds bronze medalist Vincent Zhou

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Vincent Zhou’s plans for this season went completely out the window.

After leaving his previous training base in Colorado Springs last August to begin studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he hoped to finish freshman year before taking a leave, the reigning world bronze medalist found himself without a place nearby to train.

The Brown rink had little available time, its ice conditions were fine for hockey but not figure skating, and the hockey coaches made it clear they didn’t like the way he dug it up with the toe pick.

After briefly enduring a brutal commute to a rink north of Boston, he put skating on hold in early October.

By December, Zhou decided it would be better to put school on hold after finishing one semester, and he moved to Toronto to train with coach Lee Barkell and choreographer Lori Nichol.

With barely two weeks of steady training before nationals, Zhou managed to place fourth, wisely choosing to limit his quadruple jumps to one in each program. It was good enough to earn one of the three 2020 U.S. world team spots based on his two-year body of work after finishing sixth at the 2018 Olympics.

With the World Championships coming up in Montreal, NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke recently by phone with Zhou about his nomadic existence since the move, his performance at nationals, his expectations for worlds and his plans after that.

When exactly did you get to Toronto?

I got there around Christmas time and spent Christmas there with my family and then started training for nationals.

Barely a month later, you went out and gave two solid, strategically smart performances. Did that surprise you a little?

Yeah [laughs]. I guess the best way to put it is I keep on surprising myself and others with results I’m able to put out. Even a few weeks before I moved to Toronto, the thought of competing at nationals seemed impossible. Even a week before nationals, I didn’t think I was going to be able to compete. Simply doing a [free] program with a quad Salchow and two triple Axels seemed impossible. I outperformed all my expectations. That’s something to be really proud of.

How many weeks before moving were you doing basically no training at all?

Over two months, zero. I stopped skating after Japan Open [Oct. 5]. I went to the gym occasionally. For the most part, my two months off was completely no skating-related stuff.

After the free skate at nationals, your first reaction seemed to be utter exhaustion. Then you allowed yourself a little celebration. Was that evidence of how far from your normal fitness level you were?

I didn’t feel more exhausted than I normally would be in competition because of adrenaline. I react differently every time. This time, I was really shocked at how well I was able to do and blown away by the audience response. I had my hands clasped behind my neck, and I was breathing heavily looking around for a few seconds. Obviously, I wasn’t in as good condition as I could have been if I had kept skating and training.

I think in competition, it’s all about the mind in the end. When I put my mind to it, I can do everything. Even if I’m not trained or conditioned to the best of my capability, I can still pull some great things off.

From where you were a week before, with doubt about competing, how did you get your mind to a place where you not only could compete but also compete well?

I relied on a belief in my ability to settle into my normal competition groove. When I got to nationals, that is what happened, fortunately. I didn’t know if I would be rusty, so to speak, wouldn’t be able to find that competition feeling and mindset again, but I was able to retain it. When I do get in that groove, it’s hard to stop me.

Are you living with your mother in Toronto?

Yes.

Do you have a place long-term or will you find a new place after this season?

I don’t know for certain what I am going to do. For now, we have a place close to the Granite Club [his training base], and everything is working out fine.

Will you stay there through worlds and then go back to California [where he grew up] for a while and then re-evaluate your living arrangements?

As long as everything goes well, I plan to just stay here until after the 2022 Olympics, after which I will go back to school. I might have the occasional visit to Colorado Springs, because that’s where my skate guy is, and I can also visit the Olympic Training Center and see my trainer and nutritionist.

How close to the bronze-medal Vincent Zhou of the 2019 Worlds do you think you can be at this Worlds?

I hope to just be there [the same level], but again, just like when I was speculating about the possible results of nationals a few weeks out, it seems like a far-off dream. I’m working hard every week, and we’re building step by step. All I can do is keep on trying to get some mileage on the necessary stuff again, keep training and building and see where I am and make the best of the situation. I can’t get ahead of myself. I have to accept the situation I’m in and deal with it.

So, were you prepared to deal with finishing, say, sixth at nationals?

I half-joked before the short program that I would score like 60 points [he got 94.82]. I was ready for anything to happen. I honestly was not confident in my ability to podium. [Editor’s note: He wound up on the lowest step, with the fourth-place pewter medal.] So even making it on the podium at nationals was a huge achievement for me.

Given what you did with so little real training, how much more confidence does that give you heading to worlds?

What I have found so far is it is a little bit of a confidence booster in training, which is always up and down. When I’m having a rough session, I try to remind myself of what I was able to do at nationals, given my condition. I’m telling myself that even if am not able to do this perfectly now, I still have it in me to pull it out at Worlds. But obviously that’s not an excuse to slack off.

With no school now, how are you filling the gap to keep your mind working?

Right now, I’m still settling into a new environment. We’re still figuring out the situation with the new place we moved into just after nationals. We’re still unpacking, buying new stuff, moving things around. Eventually, I hope to enroll in a course at University of Toronto, so I can get that credit transferred and keep the gears flowing a little and make it a tiny bit easier on me in the future.

Where were you living temporarily until after nationals?

Friends of friends provided us places. Right now, it’s still a friend of a friend’s place. It has been a condo, an apartment, a house; anything is fine.

How many times have you moved since you first got there?

Three or four. For the most part, we have kept our suitcases largely packed. We’ve only taken out the basic necessities. At first, I was starting to worry that people at the rink thought I only owned two outfits. I think we’re planning to settle down longer in our current place. We’re starting to unpack a little more.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Catching up with Nathan Chen before the world championships

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”